The musicality of sport

National Art Library
August 5, 2021

As Olympic fever continues to sweep across the UK, my mind’s drawn to an eye-catching portfolio score in the National Art Library’s collections. In its own unique way, Sports et divertissements (1914), captures on paper the magic to be found through sport…

The eccentric composer Erik Satie (1866 – 1925), of Gymnopédie fame, presents a series of sports and amusements as 21 piano shorts. These are accompanied by spirited copper plate etchings designed by Charles Martin (1884 – 1934) and hand-coloured using the fashionable pochoir stencilling process of the early 20th century. Little evidence can be found that Martin and Satie ever met, or even communicated about the direction of each marriage of music, words and image – their work commissioned for this expensive livre d’artiste by the publisher Lucien Vogel; Martin was an illustrator for the exclusive fashion magazine Gazette du bon ton, also published by Lucien Vogel.

Sports et divertissements, composed by Erik Satie; illustrated by Charles Martin. Paris, Lucien Vogel, 1914‎. L.5099-1980.

Placing ourselves back in the 21st century, golf joins the Olympics again for Tokyo 2020, reinstated at Rio 2016 following a 112 year hiatus. It featured at the 1900 and 1904 games, to be shelved in London 1908 due to disputes concerning its format. In Satie’s 1914 poetic interpretation a colonel dressed in tweed presents the sport:

Les nuages sont étonnés.
Les “holes” sont tout tremblants.
Le colonel est là!

Striding confidently across the green, intimidating even the holes and the clouds above, he’s deflated eventually only by an over-zealous swing that shatters his club – reflected by cascading fourths in the music. We can see here the lack of communication between Satie and Martin: the words and music contrasting significantly with the illustration.

Sailing was conceived as part of the Olympics from the first modern Olympiad in Greece 1896. It actually saw its debut at the following games, however, due to poor weather conditions in Greece. Satie’s yachting party have to contend with their own turbulent weather, reflected in the repeating pattern (ostinato) in the left-hand:

Quel temps!
Le vent souffle comme un phoque.
Le yacht danse.
Il a l’air d’un petit fou.

A lady in the party is not so willing to battle with the elements, demanding her car as she’d rather do something else in Satie’s poetry; a girl appears perhaps to have actually taken a dip in Martin’s illustration. We can see something of Martin’s penchant for the risqué in his depiction of this lady, and that of the lady in ‘Le Golf’ (Martin was also the illustrator of the erotic Mascarades et Amusettes, 1920).

The bid for angling to become part of Tokyo 2020 was rejected amidst claims that it was too slow-paced and incomprehensible for most viewers. However, it was unofficially part of the 1900 Paris games, with no record of the winners from the six nations that participated. The success of the fisherman in Satie’s piece is similarly faltered, fish jump and swim up, consider him sat on the riverbank, and then nonchalantly turn to swim away. He leaves, restoring the calm “murmuring of the water in the riverbed” – again, somewhat differently illustrated by Martin for Satie’s first completed piece for the suite.

As we soon bid farewell to the Olympics again for another 3 years, it’s interesting to see the mood of some of these activities captured over one hundred years ago in an artistic format. The inherent movement of the subject matter is reflected on the page through the reproduction of Satie’s original penmanship – the black scrawls of his witty mood poems accompanying the manuscript musical notation on the red lines of the staves. Fleeting impressions of the excitement of each sport or activity radiate through this brief work, running at just 13-15 minutes when performed in its entirety. Augenmusik (where the visual composition of the music reflects the content) features beautifully on the page and when combined with Martin’s illustrations create something of a Gesamtkunstwerk.

The National Art Library at the V&A remains closed at present whilst we refurbish and transform our facilities and services. A limited number of appointments are available for researchers on Thursdays 1.00 – 4.00 pm from 26 August 2021. Please see details for booking here, and in the meantime, hoping we can all find time to get outside and embrace the magic that can be achieved through sport!

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